The beautiful and acoustically excellent Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara was the venue for a powerful chamber music concert on Saturday, January 25th. The not too common combination of violin and cello played respectively by violinist extraordinaire Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the equally matched musicianship of cellist Jay Campbell delighted a near full house with a carefully chosen set of pieces from the 642 CE to the present. Who knew that there was so much music for this combination of instruments and that it would be so marvelously engaging?
This concert was part of the UC Santa Barbara’s always excellent Arts and Lectures series. Kopatchinskaja was clearly the big name on the marquee for this event but Campbell was clearly a match both in skill and enthusiasm for this night’s event.
A slight change in the program was announced at the beginning which, if this reviewer heard correctly placed a piece originally slated for the second half of the program in the number two slot on the first half.
The concert opened with an anonymous “Alleluia” from a collection of works only recently (the past 50 years or so) deciphered by scholars. The slow melismatic voice lines transcribed here for these string instruments was played with the sort of approximate intonation common to so called “period performances” which attempt to provide as much as possible some sense of how the music may have sounded in its time. It was a slow piece rich in harmonics and reverent in execution.
The next piece, a clearly modern piece from the look of the oversized score on the music stand, was (again if this reviewer heard this correctly) by Hungarian composer Márton Illés (1975- ). It was the world premiere of “Én-kör III”, a piece that brought us nearly 1500 years forward and evoked the modernist sound world of Darmstadt and the sort of modernism that dominated the 1950s in Europe. It was a challenging piece for both listeners and players involving special techniques of playing that doubtless made for a fascinating looking score. On sheer virtuosity and powerful performance alone the piece was well received. It is complex music that doubtless benefits from repeated hearings and this premiere suggests that that will be the case. The interested listener would do well to explore the web site of this fascinating composer whose name and music was new to this writer’s ears.
Next up, music by another modernist composer, the German, Jörg Widmann (1973- ). Two selections (numbers 21 and 24) from his 24 duos for violin and cello (2008) were also of the Darmstadt style modernism mentioned earlier. The Valse Bavaroise (Bavarian Waltz) had echoes of the 19th century Viennese traditions while the Toccatina all’inglese which followed it was a finger busting virtuosic showpiece, another audience pleaser actually.
Then, as if to cleanse our aural pallets the duo played Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) Fantasia a 2, No. 4 for two “viols”. As in the opening piece these are transcriptions since the violin and cello as we know them today did not exist. This little instrumental miniature was a charming and relaxing interlude.
The final piece on the first half of this concert was the too seldom heard Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). This again set the mood to virtuosic modernism. Even people in the audience familiar with Ravel’s better known works were astounded at the modern sound. According to the program notes this work was written in the shadow of both the death of his esteemed fellow French luminary Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the end of the First World War (also 1918). Indeed there were angry dissonances to be heard but this four movement sonata remains an astounding work and this performance was a powerful and forceful reading conveying the respect that this masterpiece deserves. It is filled with both jazz influences as well as gypsy music (no doubt dear to the Moldovan born Kopatchinskaja). And were it not for the visual cues that only two instruments were actually playing one might guess that there were certainly more. At this point we all needed an intermission just to breathe.
The second half of the concert consisted of (with one exception) music from the region of Kopatchinskaja’s birth. The Romanian born Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) produced a great deal of music in the high modernism and experimental traditions but the work which opened the second half of this concert was an early work “Dhipli Zyia” (1951) which sounded much like the work of (also Romanian born) Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) with whom Xenakis had familiarity and, apparently, affection.
The program continued without the punctuation of applause into the 14th century with a work by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377), his Ballade 4. This is apparently originally a vocal work and was played in transcription for tonight’s soloists.
Again without the transition signal of applause the duo launched into another work which, like the Xenakis, is atypical of his largely modernist oeuvre. György Ligeti (1923-2006) is perhaps best know for his music’s (unapproved) inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The work played on this night was “Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg” (1982). Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985) was among the earliest Swedish modernist composers and this work was written on the occasion of his 90th birthday. The piece echoed Ligeti’s affection for the aforementioned Bela Bartok and folk tunes predominated this brief but lovely score.
The duo launched with little pause into a piece by Bartok’s contemporary Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). His “Duo for Violin and Cello” Op. 7 (1914) sounded almost like a model for the later Ravel piece heard at the conclusion of the first half of the concert. This three movement work is unusual in this composer’s catalog in that it is more aggressively modern than much of his more folk inflected pieces (Bartok and Kodaly were early pioneers in ethnomusicology and they collected and recorded a great deal of folk music from the region of Hungary, Romania, etc.) It was a fantastic finale which garnered the artists an enthusiastic standing ovation. The smiling and obviously satisfied performers received the traditional bouquets of flowers and returned for a brief little piece (didn’t catch the name) which was a little token of thanks to the equally satisfied and smiling audience.